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What's Opera, Doc? Part 2: Les Mis.

By Alex Richards

In Part 1, Alex Richards discussed a potential POD concerning The Mikado. Here, he looks at one of the few performances that had New York audiences cheering the waving of the red flags of revolution on stage.

We'll keep the red flag of financial success flying high.


What is arguably the world’s most successful opera – both financially and in terms of public appeal – is a rather more recent affair than you might think. Scored by Claude-Michel Schönberg with a French libretto by Alain Boublil, the work originally premiered at the Palais de Sports in Paris on September 24th, 1980. The Libretto was re-worked and translated into English by Hebert Kretzmer for a London premiere on October 8th, 1985, to mixed critical reviews but massive popular success – which has followed it ever since. It’s been translated into twenty-one languages (including a new French translation based on the more popular English libretto), recorded over 70 times, arias from it have become fixtures of the concert stage and there’s even been a high budget film adaptation of it.

I am, of course, talking about Les Misérables.

Now, on the face of it, this seems an absurd statement. Les Mis is a beloved work of musical theatre that generally speaking isn’t grouped with operas at all in the popular consensus. Yet, on the other hand, Les Mis is a work for stage with an integral score, where all the dialogue is sung – either in the form of highly melodic arias or more ‘speak-singing’ recitative sections. There are certainly sylistic differences with more traditional operas – though no greater than that between Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – but even if we accept that the usual ‘distinctions’ between operas and musicals (the latter featuring spoken dialogue instead of being fully sung, integral dance elements, and the use of popular music) are actually distinctions rather than simply reflecting two different styles of an essentially identical medium (and there are plenty of operas that feature spoken dialogue, integral dance, and what would have been contemporary poular music), it’s hard to argue that Les Mis actually meets any of these – save possibly that it was written to feature the more populist style of tonal music rather than embracing the atonalism of a lot of the contemporary classical scene.

In reality, the distinction here is commercial. Writing a ‘musical’ in 1980 means aiming for Broadway and the West End and large audiences of the general public, whereas writing an ‘opera’ means you are aiming for the Met and Covent Garden and a small, select audience of classical music fans, as part of a divergence in cultures that originated in the 1920s. It’s worth considering how of the two existing traditions at the time – operas and operettas – the former essentially became seen as the domain of the privileged elite, and the latter evolved into a style so keen to divorce itself from any link to the former that it could absorb works that, stylistically speaking, lie entirely in the operatic tradition.


Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Our starting point on this must be to set the operatic scene of the 1920s. The great operatic centres of the late 19th Century – France, Italy, Russia, and Germany – were each seeing their own challenges. In France, the grand opera tradition was struggling to deal with the influence of Wagner, as filtered through the symbolism (and rejection of melody) of Debussy’s later period. In contrast, the operettas of Offenbach and his successors were enjoying popular appeal, with Ravel’s works leaning more towards the comic influences of this style. Italy was faced with the death of Puccini – her own great titan of the field – and was still largely in his shadow. On the other hand, both Russia – now the Soviet Union – and especially Germany were seeing a period of great experimentation as political revolution gave birth to artistic experimentation in cities where many of the traditional patrons of the art, censors, and critics had been swept aside.

Ten years later and the heavy hand of censorship was crushing much of these traditions. German Expressionism – which in theatre had seen Kurt Weill offer a series of socialist critiques on capitalist society – was suppressed by the Nazis as a form of ‘degenerate’ art. Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk became emblematic of Stalin’s purges as the initially popular opera drew his displeasure – resulting in all further experimentation in this direction ending. Shostakovich himself, despite not yet being 30, never wrote another opera in his life and spent most of the next two decades sleeping with a packed suitcase by the door in case the security services came knocking. Italy had seen less experimentation but still saw the shadow of Mussolini fall on the genre – not even Gian Francesco Malipiero, who had collaborated with Gabriele D’Annunzio and was friendly with Il Duce, could escape the consequences of adapting a libretto critical of the regime. Only in France was outright censorship not in play, and here the subtler influence of an old guard of critics and theatre owners resistant to contemporary styles still created its own chilling atmosphere.

Cabaret, which depicts the heavy-hand of Nazi censorship on adventurous works.

It is difficult to understate how deep the impact of this censorship was on culture. Italy never really had the chance to develop a new style before Mussolini took power – with the result that even such a figure as Luigi Nono, who introduced the Estonian Arvo Pärt to the contemporary traditions of the West, is essentially unknown outside his homeland. It is consequently almost impossible to tell how that scene might have evolved had it not been strangled in its cradle. Shostakovich represents both how things could have gone better or worse based on the whims of Stalin – a favourable review of Lady Macbeth of Mtsinsk could have seen a succession of new operas revelling in the tragic satirical style he was pioneering, while a more serious criticism from the Kremlin could have doomed one of the most celebrated composers of the 20th Century to the Gulag when his career had barely started. And it is, of course, almost incalculable how severe the effect of the Nazis on culture in Europe was. Domestically, it saw the extinguishing of the musical developments in Berlin – the cabaret theatres, the expressionist music and films, and the cutting satire of Brecht and Weill. Further afield, the occupation of most of Europe that would see, for just one example among many, the destruction of most of the Polish composer Lutosłowski’s extant music (though fortunately the man himself escaped to the Soviet Union), or the outright murder of countless artists and composers. The world where Weimar Germany survives is one where you can almost guarantee that there would be composers known only to the most meticulous academics in our history who would be household names in that world.

Composers thus did the same thing that they had always done when faced with a patron reluctant to change – they either conformed, and produced what was expected of them – works which were perhaps financially successful but had little impact outside of the conservative audiences they pandered to – or they sought a new patron elsewhere. And in the 1920s, that increasingly meant the film industry. Thus, at the exact moment when cinema offered a new alternative to live theatre in all its forms, live theatre was essentially driving composers to cinema. Where Rogers and Hammerstein would have made their name on the stage in the 1890s, by the 1950s, they were doing so on the screen. For audiences in the States, the Broadway Musical – which was already taking on more contemporary styles than the older theatres and opera companies – merged seamlessly into the Hollywood film musicals, and take with them the traditions of Offenbach, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Lehár, among others.

Yet there is a missing link in all this. There had always been a split in operas and operettas between those seeking popular appeal and those aimed at the upper and upper-middle classes, a dichotomy best seen in the distinction between Cosi fan tutte and The Magic Flute – both by Mozart; one for the court theatre, one for the popular. And while the film industry could supplant operettas and vaudeville, it doesn’t answer why Musical Theatre ended up supplanting opera among most of its traditional market. It’s certainly not an inevitability with the dawn of the new medium – Benjamin Britten saw a great deal of popular appeal with this group in the immediate post-war years, for example – but there was a fatal confluence of two factors.

The first was the general conservatism of the medium. This was nothing new, and if in the late 20th Century it reflected a preference for strict black tie dress codes and older works which could be guaranteed to be a financial success, this was something that could have been overcome by the push from new artists breaking into the medium. The problem came from how those artists were trying to innovate. Modernists in music – Arnold Schoenberg perhaps the most prominent among them – pushed for ever more radical atonalism in music, assuring critics that Stravinsky had been seen as too radical in his time and that audiences would come round eventually. Modernists in staging attempted to shock audiences out of their complacency with rule breaking performances of traditional operas that at best breathed new dynamism into older works and at worst simply found a new way of being emotionally vacuous – just now with added nudity. Even the exceptions – John Adams putting contemporary politics on stage with Nixon In China, or Philip Glass utilising contemporary instrumentation in Einstein on the Beach – tended to be the sort of work best described as an experimental push on the boundaries of popular styles.

The simple fact is that despite the assurances of Schoenberg and the like, audiences did not find appeal in their works. Not at the time, and not subsequently. Contemporary audiences saw these new innovations as being obsessed with an intellectually elite world view as the conservative audiences were obsessed with a socially elite one (not that there wasn’t crossover here – we cannot discount the fact that the mid-20th Century avant garde was dominated by White European Men who were highly dismissive of popular music – Jazz and other ‘African’ styles most especially). Later audiences were scarcely less scathing in their assessment. Come the 21st Century, both of these aspects had been significantly eroded. Financial difficulties forced the abandonment of the old hidebound attitudes on dress codes and the like, and the next generation of musical and staging innovators largely turned away from shock tactics as these became ever more familiar – what was once shocking was now normalised and the concept of trying to shock the audience seen as a bit trite.

By that point, matters were too late. General attitudes had solidified, and opera, if it is ever to regain widespread popular appeal, will have to largely start from scratch to get into these new audiences. We can only speculate how different those attitudes might have been had it been the likes of Brecht and Shostakovich who were free to carry the operatic tradition through the 1930s and 40s.

Bereft of what we might term the 'popular opera' scene from the 20s onwards, the musicals of Broadway and the West End eventually expanded into the cultural vacuum that had been created. For some artists it was using bigger budgets to produce more extravagant staging. For others, it was writing more extensive sung passages, or bigger and more elaborate ensemble numbers. Until eventually – perhaps inevitably – the same forces that had originally created the 19th Century grand operas combined once more to produce works near-indistinguishable from them in style and scale – Les Misérables being only the most prominent.

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